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Just a few unrelated stories from Monday/Tuesday about how things are going in the Middle East:

First, Secretary of State Rice, is promoting the idea that the Israelis and Palestinians should start to hold discussions that might lead to peace in the region. After all, it's been a long time:

Ms. Rice was pressed on Monday to cite any cause for optimism in resolving an Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has defied both Republican and Democratic administrations — and at a time when the region is roiled with conflict.

“Before we say that this is going to end in frustration, let’s be glad that after six years and a long time that the parties want to engage in an informal set of discussions about the future between them,” Ms. Rice said.

Let's see, that six years would be about the same length of time as . . .

Birth pangs? Remember how the Bush Administration went out of its way last year to encourage the Israelis not only to continue their incursion into Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah but to expand the war right on into Syria? When the Lebanese leaders and the rest of the world were pleading for a ceasefire, we kept stalling at the UN. In explaining why a premature ceasefire was not a good idea, Condi Rice called this policy the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East. Well, maybe there were some in the Administration who were more interested in aborting some other efforts between the Israelis and Syrians.

According to an Iraeli newspaper, Haaretz, it seems that for a couple of years, up until the summer of 2006, individuals from Syria and Israel were engaged in secret but comprehensive peace discussions. They produced a document that went into fine detail about how to resolve all the issues between the two countires. Those discussion of course ended with the incursion into Lebanon, spurred on by the US, and would seem to have little chance of revival under the Bush policy of openly confronting Iran and Syria.

Now, however, the Israeli Prime Minister is denying that anyone in his government was "involved" in the discussions, suggesting that any discussion that might have occurred would have been by individuals acting without authority or knowledge of the government. The Syrians are also denying any authorized discussions took place.

Whatever the facts, what I find fascinating is how quickly authorities on all sides are dismissing the possibility that the Syrians and Israelis ought to be talking to each other. How embarrassing. And I wonder who in the US government knew?

UPDATE: Curiouser and curiouser: A follow up story in Haaretz now reports that senior US officials, including VP Dick Cheney, were closely tracking these discussions. (h/t to angie and Crazy Horse for finding the link.)

What does a nightmare look like? The United Nations released a study, based on reports from Iraq hospitals and morgues, that indicate that about 34,000 Iraqis were killed last year through sectarian violence and related causes. Iraq has a population of about 27 million people. In US terms, with roughly 11 times the population as Iraq, that's the equivalent of 375,000 American deaths — in one year. Previous Iraqi estimates were "only" about 12,000 Iraqi killings last year, and there have been studies estimating much higher figures. Meanwhile, the slaughter continues, with another 100 or so Iraqis killed in varioius bombing and shooting incidents on Tuesday.

You can't make this up. Only a few days after the Iraqis shocked the world with their handling of Saddam Hussein's execution, it seems the execution of his two co-defendants also, as the NYT delicately phrased it, "went awry." By now you've seen the stories about how the Shiite Government's executioners managed to literally rip the head off Saddam's half-brother during his hanging. The incident appears to be "breathing new life" into Saddam's old Baathist movement. Outraged Sunnis are now vowing revenge; revengeful Shiites are celebrating. If, like Joe Lieberman, you thought our Iraq policy is on track because we're backing the "moderate" democratic elements against the extremist supporters of the Iranian axis of evil, you might have to revise your opinion — or if you're Joe Lieberman, I guess you don't have to revise your opinion because inconvenient facts don't matter.

Some may be relieved to know that this engineering error would likely not happen if the US were in charge of the execution. It seems we have a manual for how to hang people "properly," drafted in the Eisenhower era. From the NYT:

An Internet search for manuals on hanging suggested that Mr. Ibrahim was the victim of an overestimate by his executioners. One of the most authoritative manuals, the United States Army’s “Procedure for Military Executions,” issued under the authority of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was Army chief of staff in 1947, gave a chart that recommended that a man of about Mr. Ibrahim’s weight, about 185 pounds, would need a “drop” of five feet seven inches — nearly two and a half feet less than the drop for Mr. Ibrahim — to assure what the manual called “a proper execution.”

The manual added: “A medical officer should be consulted to determine whether any factors, such as age, health or muscular condition, will affect the amount of drop necessary for a proper execution.”

I suppose it's reassuring that someone actually thinks about these things.

Finally, does he ever get it? I leave the President himself to cap off the hanging story. In a interview with Jim Lehrer on News Hour Tuesday night, George W. Bush, who took his country to war and keeps it in war as much for pride and to one-up his father as for any other rationale he's given, made the following statements without the slightest sense of irony or self awareness:

I was disappointed and felt like they fumbled the — particularly the Saddam Hussein execution.

It basically says to people, "Look, you conducted a trial and gave Saddam justice that he didn't give to others. But then, when it came to execute him, it looked like it was kind of a revenge killing."

It makes it harder for me to make the case to the American people that this is a government that does want to unify the country and move forward. And it just goes to show that this is a government that has still got some maturation to do.

*sigh*